Sunday, September 30, 2012

The night the first CHEERS aired

Thirty years ago today at 9:30 pm CHEERS premiered on the NBC television network. We look back and it was a major milestone, but at the time we were the world’s best-kept secret. Eleven years later the series would end with 40,000,000 people celebrating. But the night of its premiere it was just about fifty of us in a back room in a restaurant.

Join me for a look at what happened that night.  

The ratings the next morning were disappointing. They would stay bad for a year. But none of that mattered on September 30, 1982. The show was actually going to be ON THE AIR. The brilliant script by the Charles Brothers was written the year before. Casting took months. The pilot was shot in early spring. The small writing staff of the Charles Brothers and Levine & Isaacs began breaking stories and preparing scripts in late May. The show went into production the beginning of August.

By the time we premiered we had already shot six or seven episodes. To help familiarize the studio audience with the show, they were shown an abridged version of the pilot. Between editing and those audience screenings I must’ve seen the CHEERS pilot fifty times.

But this was different. It was finally going to be shown to the world. I remember being so excited in the summer when a promo would air and for a few fleeting seconds – there was the bar! On TV! It’s how I felt when they were shooting an episode of THE FBI in my hometown when I was a teenager and the back fin of my car was in a shot!

Glen & Les and Jimmy threw a first night party at Chasen’s. For several decades Chasen’s was THE Hollywood hotspot. You could go on any night and expect to see Ronald Reagan or someone even more well-known.

We all walked through the restaurant to a backroom where six or seven large tables were set up. There were four or five large TV’s strategically placed. Everyone dressed up. Jackets and ties and dresses. If you were going to bump into the President of the United States at the bar you wanted to look nice. CHEERS, in general, was a dressy show. We always wore jackets and ties on the stage on filming nights.

We all arrived around 6:00 for cocktails. I didn’t see Reagan but I did see Carol Lynley. I had to drink for both me and my wife because she was eight months pregnant with our son, Matt (who was the first CHEERS baby born during the run of the show and coincidentally turns thirty next month).

The mood was high. The reviews were in and were mostly positive. A few pans but basically praise. Hopefully they would bring us some viewers. Certainly the print ad NBC took out wouldn’t. A full-page of HA HA HA HA HA HA. That was their idea of conveying comedy tonight.

At 6:30 everybody checked their watch. We were on in the east coast. Even though we couldn’t see it ourselves, it was cool knowing others could. I think a couple of people called relatives back east just to make sure it was on. Can you believe? We couldn’t text. After 7:00 my wife phoned her parents in Brooklyn. Her dad said, “Tell her to stick with the bartender.”

There was no assigned seating but the actors always gravitate towards the actors and the writers to the writers. I recall the great David Lloyd sitting at our table. David wrote some of the finest CHEERS scripts and was our one-night-a-week punch up guy. Imagine Noel Coward after a couple of pops at your table. I’m sure we laughed more than the actors.

Dinner was served. Chicken pies. Not sure why but Chasen’s and chicken pies became the traditional first night party for seasons to come.

The TV’s were on but with the sound muted. Finally at 9:28 the audio appeared and the anticipation built. I had never been more excited to see something I had already seen fifty times. The room stilled. At 9:30 the show came on and the room went nuts. As each credit rolled another big cheer went up. Each actor entered to delirious applause.   Forget that the rest of America was going, "So who's this guy now?"

I suspect the experience of seeing your show on the air for the first time is ruined today by the meatball logos in the corner, the flashy banners and animated promos that completely obliterate any mood or scene -- not that the networks give a shit.

We all laughed at the jokes, more out of appreciation for the performances. By this time even my wife (who had gone to the filmings) could recite the script line by line.

When the show ended (to more enthusiastic applause) there was ten minutes of everyone congratulating everyone else and then the toasts began. No CHEERS event was ever complete without at least twenty toasts. Fortunately, they were all brief and very funny. And Les Charles always had the best ones. God, I wish I had written them down. I would be stealing them to this day.

At 11:00 we all headed home. Tonight we were part of the best show on television. Tomorrow we’d be part of the lowest rated show on the lowest rated network.

I am so proud and honored to be associated with CHEERS. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been a part of several great iconic shows, and I am often asked which was my favorite? My answer is CHEERS. Something about the concept, the people involved, where I was in my life – but David and I wrote 40 episodes of CHEERS over a nine year span and I never got tired of writing that show. The characters always felt fresh, the stories were always inventive and fun, and as long as we didn’t have to write another damn Norm entrance, it was an absolute pleasure.

And here’s the best part. Sometimes you look back at a chapter of your life and acknowledge it was a golden period but didn’t realize it at the time. With CHEERS I knew, from day one, that this was special and I was incredibly fortunate to be along for the ride.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!

Later in the week I’ll offer my reaction to the GQ article about CHEERS that recently came out. And check back tomorrow for something very different and hopefully very interesting.

42 comments:

Michael said...

I remember watching the 1st episode and being instantly hooked by the smart and funny writing.

A Friday question, do you know how early in the show's development was it decided to name the bar and the show "Cheers"? Were there other names considered for either?

Lyle said...

As usual, great writing, Ken.

Enjoyed the story . . . enjoy almost all you write. Keep 'em comin' !!

Ron said...

Thirty years didn't seem like a lot until I realized that the reason I missed the premier of Cheers was that I'd just graduated high school and was in Basic Training at Fort Jackson. NOW I feel appropriately fossilized.

droszel said...

My wife and I watched the show together. She loved it. Me? Not so much. Shows you who has the best taste in our family. I've often thought she'd be a great person for a test audience group (or, whatever such a group is called). She is uncanny at identifying with shows that become popular. Me? Not so much. I've just taken to taking her recommendations. I came to love Cheers, as much as I've enjoyed any TV show

benson said...

Every above me said it better than I can, so I'll say say thanks for all the great entertainment. I fell in love with Cheers from the first scene when the kid walks in the bar.

Bill McCloskey said...

Wow. It was my first day living in New York after moving there from Pittsburgh. I stayed at a friends apartment until I could get one of my own. That night we watched the first episode of Cheers. I've been in New York ever since. 30 years. Congratulations.

MacGilroy said...

I distinctly remember watching it by myself in my San Francisco apartment and laughing out loud and realizing how rare that was for me at the time (the laughing out loud at a TV show part, not the sitting alone in my apartment part).

Christodoulos said...

What a great show! I bet it will still be remembered in its 100th anniversary. Thanks to all involved, and thanks to you Ken for sharing.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Happy anniversary, Ken. As I've told you before, CHEERS is one of the few shows in television history that combined timeless characters, intelligent AND funny writing, a clean appealing presentation and a staff that from top to bottom was a flawless entertainment machine. Everyone comes to L.A. just to get their name on the credits of a show or film. The experience and pride of the CHEERS crew did not settle for just getting on the air and did not compromise on the quality. THAT screen credit is the most elusive and should be the biggest source of pride.

Doesn't it hold true that (as seldom as it happened) whenever there was a cheap laugh line on CHEERS, it seemed completely out of place? Try to manipulate any big laugh line from any sitcom today and try wedging it into a CHEERS dialogue. Nope. Doesn't work. Congrats to you and all.

croquemore said...

For anything to succeed on television there have to be characters that we know and love, empathize with and want to have a beer with. Cheers gave us all of that. The actors brought to life the words writers wrote and we soaked it all in. Cheers to you Ken and all associated with such a great show. As a side note, this week appears to be Ken Levine and David Issacs week on TV Land as they are running about 10 of your MASH shows this week as part of that shows 40th anniversary. Tonight a night at Rosie's followed by Goodbye Radar 1 and 2. Thanks Ken for writing.

Paul Duca said...

(voice of Bill Drake)

THIRTY YEARS AGO TODAY!


"Making your way in the world today takes everything you got..."

Paul Duca said...

I have more to day, but didn't want to spoil the mood.

Thirty years ago I was starting college in Maine...

And unfortunately, MeTV isn't noting it, devoting their "Sunday Showcase" to the golden anniversary of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES. And while they celebrated M*A*S*H, they ignored the 40th anniversary of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. I did bring both these facts up at their Facebook site.

I don't think ReelzChannel is doing anything either
(still, check out their new series BOMB GIRLS).

Max Clarke said...

I listen to the audio of Cheers episodes on my iPod all the time. The lines are so well written and delivered, they're like listening to music.

My favorite line from the first episode -a model of how to introduce characters in a pilot:

Diane to Coach: Where is your bathroom?

Coach: Next to my bedroom.


I always know it's coming, I've heard it a hundred times, but the joke still works.

Tom Quigley said...

During all the years CHEERS was on the air, my favorite Norm entrance went approximately like this:

NORM: Evening, everybody.

ALL: Norm!

WOODY: What's goin' down, Mr. Peterson?

NORM: My butt cheeks on that stool.

Ken -- Congratulations on all your contributions to a classic!

Kirk said...

30 years. Wow. The show's held up very well. It's hard to imagine any sitcom on the air now holding up as well 30 years from now.

RCP said...

This was great fun to read - congratulations, Ken, on being an integral part of this show. The night you describe would be a dream-come-true for many a writer.

Thirty years! I was beginning my second semester at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (yes, there are universities in Alaska).

VincentS said...

Thanks for sharing your memories and giving your talents to such a classic TV show, Ken.

David Whitham said...

Ken, I just want to say, "Thank you". I've been watching the first season on Netflix, and it's just as funny now as it was 30 years ago. Easily funnier than anything that is on TV now.

Craig said...

I remember a TV ad before the "Cheers" premiere featuring a pair of beer mugs shattering as they knocked into each other. I'm glad I watched anyway.

Anonymous said...

Great story. I remember watching the pilot all by myself and laughing out loud. I guess the show wasn't a hit right off the bat, but back then there were millions of us viewers who knew it was the best comedy on TV from the start.

Jonah D said...

Ken,

Thanks for such a well written article. I felt like I was there celebrating with you! Good writing will never go out of fashion, that's why we're still talking about Cheers, today.

Julie M said...

My favorite show ever. Nothing comes close for me.

Andy said...

My first sitcom writing credit, thanks to the opportunity given to me and my then writing partner by the late, great David Angell. The thrill of seeing the first of three of our episodes filmed on that iconic set was unbelievable. Throw in Jim Burrows introducing us from the audience, and we felt, for a moment, like we were indeed at a place where everybody knew your name! Congrats, Ken.

YEKIMI said...

I think one of the funniest lines I have EVER heard was when Norm walked into the bar and after being asked a question stated "It's a dog-eat-dog world and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear". To this day that line still makes me laugh my ass off.

Ken Hommel said...

Strangely, a 30th anniversary marathon did happen. On Cloo.

Robin Raven said...

Thank you for this wonderful blog post. I discovered "Cheers" during the Sam and Diane episodes in reruns in 1991. I was twelve, and it became an extremely important show to me.

I so enjoy your writing for television, film, and this blog. I hope to take your writing workshop next time it's offered.

Thanks for all the laughs. :)

emily said...

Coach: (answering phone) Cheers... (then yelling out) Is there an Ernie Pantuso here?

Sam: That's you, Coach.

Coach: Speaking

Pat Reeder said...

I was also among the few who watched that opening night. I still remember when Diane's pompous date recited poetry and ended with, "That's Donne," and Sam said, "I certainly hope so." I not only laughed out loud, I knew this was going to be something on a higher level than other shows that would never dare go for a reference like that, and I made it appointment TV from night one. Only other time that's happened was years later, when I was flipping around and landed about 10 minutes into a new doctor show I'd never heard of (also a genre I'd never had any interest in before). It was "House." Never missed another episode after that, and now have all the seasons on DVD.

Storm said...

I'll never forget the night of the first episode, either; it was the day I got my first Monthly Bill, so to speak. Laying there in AG-O-NY with a heating pad, scared to take Tylenol (remember THAT madness?!), feeling happy to "be a woman" but totally miserable too... until "Cheers" came on. I decided to give it a shot, and ended up with my sides hurting instead of my abdomen. Turns out corny ol' Reader's Digest is right; laughter IS the best medicine! That, and chocolate.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

Anonymous said...

My favorite coach line was Sam comes into the bar, kinda harried looking and walking fast and before he heads into his office tells Coach, "I don't want to be bothered." and Coach says "who does!"

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

I remember watching the first episode of Cheers. I remember it being heavily promoted and was looking forward to seeing it. I was just starting high school and little did I know that Cheers was about to become a part of my Thursday night routine.

Our trash pick-up happened on Friday morning, so trash duty was assigned to me or one of my four other brothers. Trash pick-up was in the alley behind our house and across the alley was a supermarket that had a beaten up soda machine sitting just outside the entrance. That night, the night of the first Cheers episode, it was my responsibility to take out the trash. Which I did. And then walked over and bought a diet Dr. Pepper from the machine and came back. I fired up a bag of microwave popcorn and headed for the TV room, where my Mom and other brothers were firmly locked down for Magnum P.I. and Simon and Simon. In this era, we didn't have central air, so the only air conditioners were in the TV room and in Mom's room upstairs. So...

...I went up to her room, flipped on the color TV and, in complete and beautiful air conditioned isolation, with my popcorn and diet Dr. Pepper, I watched Cheers. I loved it. I remember hearing that theme song and knowing I was going to love the show, if only for the theme! The show was terrific. Hooked.

I modified it a bit and would take out the trash and buy the diet Dr. Pepper before Cheers, and then do the popcorn right before "Hill Street Blues." But that Thursday night routine became my Thursday night tradition and I look back fondly on it even to this day.

Steve said...

Friday question: Early on having the show always come back to Sam & Diane made it so powerful, and that was lost in the Rebecca years, as funny as they were. It lost that through-line, and that emotional power, I thought. Having Sam pine for Rebecca was amusing for a season or two, but it got old and went nowhere, and Sam became such a lonely and sad character for the final run, it made me enjoy the show a bit less -- I even enjoy the repeats a LITTLE less because of it. Looking back on it now, do you think it was a good move to have Sam's character end up like that? Yes, wedded to the bar was nice, but he really was alone.

(Now, I'm kind of glad he and Diane didn't wind up together in the end because that would have been too cliched and a copout, but some new Sam & somebody romance might have been great for the last year or so of the show.)

Franco Tamburro said...

I saw your blog Monday morning after I watched on DVD the "Cheers" pilot Sunday night. I was also one of those who saw it first run 30 years ago. (Did it not air at 9PM that first season?) "Cheers" from 30 years ago is still better than any other sitcom on the air - some things have just not evolved.

Andy Cowan said...

P.S. -

Andy again, who wrote about Cheers being my first sitcom writing credit... Having caught up on your previous post, I went on to write for Seinfeld, so I'm honored as well to be associated with that top five group you mentioned!

chalmers said...

While my father wasn't given to lavishing praise on sitcoms, I remember after the "Cheers" pilot aired, he said "That's a funny show."

Then, though in 40 years, I don't know that I've seen him at a bar when he wasn't waiting for a table or plane, he said, "They're right. You do want to go where everybody knows your name."

MontyB said...

Add one more to the list of those who saw the premiere episode that night. I was leaving home for college the next day, and my car was packed to the gills, so I had to stay home. I was vaguely under the impression that Cheers was going to be about a cheerleading squad, and being a healthy 18 year old, I thought it might provide a few minutes of eye candy. I was never so glad to be wrong about a show. I was instantly hooked. After moving into the dorms, I started making other students come watch this great show. Thursday nights became TV night because of Cheers and Hill Street Blues. (I think the other two shows for the NBC lineup were Fame and Gimme A Break, so we started with Cheers.) I had the largest television (a whopping 19 incher), so my room became the TV room. I'm still great friends with most of those people to this day.

That was also the same year USA Today started publication. On Wednesdays, they would post the ratings for the previous week. They listed the top 20 and the bottom 5, and Cheers was always in the bottom five. That's when I decided the public at large were idiots. I couldn't understand why people weren't watching this great show.

I'll always maintain Cheers is the greatest sitcom of all time. I don't care what anybody else says.

chuckcd said...

That was very cool. Thanks for that Ken.

Anonymous said...

Ireland in the early 80's was grim, Cheers was one of the highlights. Still love it.

cadavra said...

I may have told this story before, but it's worth repeating. I was having Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and after the feast, the wimmenfolk repaired to the kitchen to yak while us guys went to the living room to watch TV. Now this was at a time when KTLA was rerunning CHEERS at 11:00 while new episodes were still airing on NBC at 9:00. And of course it was a Thursday. So come 9:00, a new CHEERS starts, and when the theme song began, there were screams from the kitchen and all the women ran out and yelled, "It's 11:00 already???"

Dale said...

Ken.
One of my mother's great distractions from her terminal illness, with all its pain, was Cheers.
Thank you.

JediJones said...

I was 5 years old when Cheers debuted and definitely wasn't watching then. But just a few years later I became a big fan of the show. Does anyone recall when it started running in syndication? I wish I could remember the first episode I saw. I have one ironclad memory of coming home with a new G.I. Joe toy at age 9 in 1987 and playing with it while watching "Dinner at Eight-ish" in primetime. I believe by this time I was already a daily viewer of the older episodes in syndication. The earliest one I think I might have seen new on NBC was season 4's "Fear Is My Co-Pilot."

I'm sure I was describing Cheers as my favorite TV show at this time. I continued watching more or less consistently for the first 2 or 3 "Rebecca years," but lost interest after that. The clever dialogue seemed to be fading away in favor of zany, cartoonish gags and the storylines lost their emotional depth and relatability. I was a senior in high school by the time the last episode aired. Everybody watched it but the consensus the next day seemed to be, "meh."

I rewatched seasons 1-5 ten years ago when the DVDs came out and found the shows to hold up extremely well, still as brilliant, clever, laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally involving as they were when I first saw them on NBC and in syndication. Cheers is unquestionably the best sitcom of the 1980s and one of the best sitcoms of all time. If there were never any episodes beyond the "Diane years" it would already qualify for that. I still haven't bothered to rewatch any of those "Rebecca years" nor the last 2 or 3 seasons that I never watched much of in the first place.